Friday, September 01, 2006

Pan and Scanning..., I've been writing a lot recently about OTHER people's films, concerts, books, etc...

It's far past time for me to write about "OFF THE BLACK."

Well, I spent the past couple weeks dealing with the color timing for the video transfer as well as the pan and scan.

Exciting, huh?

If you don't know what these things are, I'll explain. If you do, you can understand why I've gotten so little sleep recently.

All of our post-production has been done with TECHNICOLOR, and they've been wonderful. We made the initial print for the film in New York, but we decided to do all the video work in Los Angeles--because our cinematographer, Tim Orr, was here finishing a film shoot (Mike White's film, which I'm really excited about, called "Year of the Dog."

On Tim's off-days, he and I met at Technicolor to begin the color-timing process (for video/DVD) with the brilliant MIKE UNDERWOOD. Mike's a colorist, and worked with Tim on both "All the Real Girls" and "Undertow." The two of them have a short-hand and trust between each other, and that's invaluable when you're paying by the hour.

The way the timing worked was like this: in a suite at Technicolor, the three of us watched each scene of the film, and discussed the look of every shot--whether it was too dim, too green, too bright, not warm enough, etc. Then, when Tim had seen the entire film and given extensive notes, he went back to the set of "Year of the Dog." And then it was just Mike and I.

I spent a couple weeks with Mike, watching him work at his craft, and I was pretty much in awe. I probably sound stupid, but this is how I felt: Wow. You're making my film look really, really pretty.

Color-timing is interesting...'cause if the cinematographer didn't shoot a good looking film, it's never going to look good. But because Tim Orr is such a damn genius, and he works his ass off to make every shot seem natural, resonant, and honest to the story--the work can be jaw-droppingly good. And then when you're doing the color-timing, the DP's work is simply enhanced. It's really a wonderful collaboration between the cinematographer and the colorist: they mutually benefit from each other's fine work, and seem to be genuinely respectful of each other (that's assuming they're both really good).

The color-timing process was slow, but actually seemed like "movie magic." I know that sounds geeky, but it really felt that way. We were creating something beautiful with fun tools, and there's something a bit scientific--but also a bit magical--to the way it works.

Now, the pan and scan process wasn't nearly as pleasurable. I sort of wished I had some morphine for that part.

Here's a simple explanation of a pan and scan, as it related to "Off the Black":

We shot our film in anamorphic 35mm (a 2.35:1 aspect ratio). That means gorgeous wide-screen, perfect for movie theaters...when you see it you feel like you're having a slightly epic experience, perhaps dreamlike, certainly different than everyday life.

But...when the DVD of the film comes out, it will offer several options: one will be be letter-boxed, and that's the ONLY way a film should be watched at home. If you're not watching that version, you're not seeing what the director/cinematographer intended.

Unfortunately, many people don't get to see a film like that.

They see it on a plane, a bus, or most likely, on cable television. The aspect ration for television is 1.33:1 or, as it's often referred to, 4:3. Which mean, in a nutshell, if you watch at 2.35:1 film on television in a 4:3 format, you're LOSING ABOUT 45 PERCENT OF THE IMAGE!

That's incredible. It's a completely different film.

And what has to be done to achieve that, is, basically, the director sits in a suite with a pro (and Mike Underwood was a complete professional), and watches the film with a digital matte box over it, and "re-directs" the film. Believe me, it's painful. I like wide compositions with the actors spread across the frame, as well as long shots without cutting. But when we did the pan and scan, I suddenly was forced to chop up the film so that you could see everyone (ie. a long, wide conversation scene had to become two close-up's cutting back and forth between each other).

I wanted to cry at times. I mean, I know EVERY film has to do this process, so I'm not alone. And I think audiences are pretty savvy and understand what they're getting on TV. Really, when you watch a film on cable, the visual experience you're getting is compromised--it's less about cinema and more like, well, TV.

Luckily, Mike had done hundreds of pan and scans, and while I was glad to be there for the entire arduous process, I'm grateful that he was there to walk me through the steps with wisdom, patience, and genuine creative insight.

And then, after we finished the 1.33:1 pan and scan, we had to do it all over again--this time for HDTV (which has an aspect ratio of 1.78:1). This process wasn't as dramatic, but still a bit frustrating.

In some rare cases--I'm thinking of Woody Allen's "Manhattan"--the director has simply refused to do a pan and scan, and the widescreen version is the only one that exists. And now with better television/DVD technology, pan and scans may go the way of the dodo.

Personally...I hope so. 'Cause the next time I do a pan and scan, I'm going to be sure to bring a bottle of Evan Williams with me...